Having your feminist cake and eating it too

There’s a common line of questioning that opponents of feminism will periodically put forward which goes something like this: why won’t feminists support [successful and prominent woman who is ambivalent or outright hostile towards feminism and/or has conservative political leanings]?

It’s a pretty good question. If feminism means equality for all women, as feminists frequently remind us, then why don’t feminists celebrate Margaret Thatcher, or Julie Bishop, or Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to run a successful presidential campaign in her role as Donald Trump’s campaign manager? All intelligent, ambitious women in the upper echelons of their careers, but because they don’t subscribe to progressive politics they miss out on the support of the feminist movement. I guess feminism isn’t really for all women then, hmmm?

Of course, this is put forward with a generous layer of faked concern by people who are desperate to execute a gotcha. Most feminists won’t respond to this kind of thing seriously, and it’s not really designed for a serious answer. It’s one of many ideas floating around in the cultural space of feminist debates that are plucked down and used as needed but never really fleshed out. There’s no need to add any detail to these arguments because they’re not intended for thoughtful deployment or engagement. They’re dumbly-thrown hand grenades intended to make a bang rather than achieve anything tactically sophisticated.

However, I am completely serious when I say that the question above is a good one. Digging into it leads us to some interesting suggestions about feminism and the reactionary forces opposing it. This is a big issue that I’ve been stewing on for some time now and I’m trying to keep this post short-ish, so there are about a million caveats and tangents and “i.e.”s that I’ve simply had to leave out. I’ve striven to word things as best I can in a post intended as a page in a scratch-pad rather than a fully-formed argument.

Feminists are fond of using very short, generalised definitions of feminism to address criticism about its scope and concerns about its internal debates, and to express incredulity at people who say they are not feminists. This is a problem, and it’s more of a problem than many feminists would probably like to admit.

For example: imagine someone saying “I am broadly supportive of gender equality, but I don’t think women should be elevated above men in society, so I don’t call myself a feminist.” Or “I am not interested in a social movement that doesn’t take my class and my race into account.” Or “I don’t believe that pornography and sexualisation of our bodies is empowering for women, and I see a lot of feminist messages that say otherwise, so I don’t really use the word “feminist” for myself.” Chances are that you’ve heard someone say something like this or said it yourself. Chances are, too, that you’ve responded with something like, “But feminism just means the political, economic, and social equality of women. If you believe in achieving this, you’re a feminist.” Maybe you’ve also said, “I don’t know why you’d be reluctant to call yourself a feminist when the definition is so simple. How is it even controversial?”

I see this as an instance of the so-called “motte and bailey” – a debate tactic where Person A offers a controversial point, then Person B critically engages with that point, then Person A switches to a more simple and uncontroversial form of their original point and claims that this is what their argument was based around all along. Blogger Scott Alexander describes this nicely in the post “All in All, Another Brick in the Motte” on his site Slate Star Codex.

Feminists spend a huge amount of time hashing out internal debates, developing theory, suggesting new ideas, and so on. When others (feminists or not) then note this activity and criticise it – especially when they cite aspects of it as reasons for not wanting to be a part of a feminist movement – it’s common to see a retreat away from controversial ideas and hear cries of “Uh do you have a problem with basic rights for women??”

The meaning of “feminism” is increasingly unclear. As feminist activity around the world grows and changes, this becomes even more so. We may all be nominally collected under the same banner but the differences between some strains of feminist thought are simply irreconcilable, and the debates between these strains are often more complex and fiercely fought than debates between feminists and anti-feminists. Moreover, the feminist ideas that have gained mainstream traction and prominence today are not always particularly good ones (and like many feminists, I believe these ideas have been allowed to grow and flourish due to their complicity with the social/cultural effects of neoliberalism and the interests of capital).

Feminism has such a broad scope that squishing it into a sentence or two can’t tell us anything particularly useful (outside perhaps a dictionary. I don’t deny the use of some kinds of definition, but do question their use in rhetorical battles and their effects on the intellectual character of mainstream feminism). Difficult feminist debates exist and it’s unavoidable that people who aren’t intimately acquainted with these issues will encounter them and form opinions about them. Perhaps they’ll misunderstand, perhaps they’ll create an unfair view from an out-of-context snippet – or perhaps they’ll raise valid concerns about views that some feminists hold.

It is certainly tempting to try and create a united feminist front to present to the wider world – an invaluable aid in political activism – but it’s misguided to do so when the only thing holding some of us together under the “feminist” banner might be a good faith acknowledgement that we all believe we’re searching for a better life for women.

To head back towards the original premise of this post: aside from the problems already outlined, the “short definition” rebuttal technique is a poor rhetorical move for feminists to make as it opens space for the kind of attack described in my opening section. If feminism is concerned with political opportunities for all women, why do many feminists not acknowledge the achievements of conservative women in the same way that that they do for, say, Hillary Clinton?

Here I need to profess a certain kind of admiration for women who are prominent conservative politicians and pundits. The decision of these women to have the careers they do runs contrary to the core of their belief system. They are not occupying the roles that they presumably see as the best for women to have in order to maintain a tightly-woven social fabric. Many are intelligent and politically savvy, and often more so than many of the truly mediocre men who rise to the upper echelons of the conservative commentariat and political ranks. I find Phyllis Schlafly a compelling example: an American constitutional lawyer and activist who ran the sophisticated and successful campaign opposing ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. The way she juggled the contradictions between her rhetoric and the reality of her life and work was clever and sensitive, if not always totally convincing.

These women are no friends of feminism and are often openly disdainful of feminist activism and organising – even as they benefit from the enormous cultural and social shifts that occurred in no small part due to feminist efforts (boys clubs certainly didn’t open up their ranks due to the overwhelming merit of these women). Margaret Thatcher famously stated that she owed nothing to women’s lib, and her and other conservative women in public life have never asked for or shown any expectation of receiving feminist support in their careers. Very well.

Conservative women don’t want feminist support. Feminists don’t want to support them. But, uhh, I thought feminism is for equality of all women? When am I gonna get an answer to this contradiction?

Using lines like “But feminism is just gender equality” does two interesting and dangerous things: it elides dense webs of inter-feminist debate, and it seeks to present feminism as an almost non-political entity. It presents feminism re-formed into an axiom: “gender equality is good and must be achieved” is the self-evident truth. On its own, devoid of context and whys and hows, such a sentiment is as good as meaningless.

See, feminists who offer these “short definitions” of feminism don’t mean just what they’re saying. There’s a complex backdrop of beliefs and values sitting behind this kind of definition, obscured by its axiomatic presentation. I don’t suggest that this is being concealed in an underhanded way, but that their view of gender equality as a “motherhood and apple pie” idea results in feminists assuming all right-thinking people will treat it as such. There must, then, be something seriously wrong with anyone who wants to question it. Fredrik deBoer has a series of good posts on this stuff as it pertains to broad left-leaning political behaviour. Many feminists believe that their own ideas are absolutely above questioning – hence “But you believe in gender equality? So you’re a feminist!” Sure, feminists can fairly say that their goal is the political, economic, and social equality of all women, but the unspoken element of this statement generally specifies that this goal will not be achieved through conservative political ideas and actions. The implication is that it will be achieved by mainstream, liberal feminism. Therein lies the rub: it won’t.

Conservative women don’t deserve feminist support because their political ideas and actions are harmful to women, but adhering to simplistic feminist messaging makes it difficult to assert this without looking hypocritical. However, many ostensibly progressive/liberal/left-leaning women politicians, like Hillary Clinton, also don’t deserve feminist support because their political ideas and actions are harmful to women. Feminists largely align themselves with the latter and not the former due to rank tribalism and dominance of liberal thought among the broad range of feminist ideas. A true and thoughtful commitment to feminism requires a critical eye to be taken to all politics, even that which you feel particularly committed to. A couple of wise men once said “Our task is that of ruthless criticism, and much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies”.

Right now, it doesn’t really matter who mainstream, liberal feminism lends its support to. Its intellectual limits ensure it remains complicit with oppression through its own inability to ask hard questions and foster radical thought. It is difficult to take its professed goal of gender equality seriously when liberal feminism entertains and endorses ideas that point towards an atomised, soulless society rather than one which enables women to live meaningfully. Value-free celebration of women’s success in any area. Obsession with getting women onto company boards. Cold, callous abortion rhetoric. Support for financial abortions for men. Preoccupation with minutiae. Power-worship. Idolising politicians and pundits.

This feminism that won’t support conservative women is doing nothing to counter many of the most pervasive material effects of reactionary politics. It carries on with handing out ostensibly apolitical mission statements while maintaining a cosy relationship with the status quo. The “short definition” rebuttal tactic I described earlier is an short-term tool with long-term repercussions: repeat a simplistic statement loud and often enough and contribute to the creation of a flimsy movement that reflects it.

As difficult (futile…) as it is to form a definition of feminism, we must be prepared to make certain commitments to what feminism is and is not in order to make an effective movement. Feminism cannot be a blank slate on which anyone can write something worthwhile merely by virtue of them being a woman.

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